Email of the week: on Robert Steuteville’s defense of slower-than-walking transit

I don't have time to respond to everything that gets published on transit, but Robert Steuteville's must-read piece today on the Congress for the New Urbanism blog, which explains why we should invest in transit that's slower than walking*, certainly deserves a response.   

Fortunately, sometimes an email does it for me.  From Marc Szarkowski:

Hi Jarrett,

Perhaps you've already noticed this piece and are already penning a response (even though several already exist on your blog!). It seems to be another example of the "urban designers are from Mars, transportation planners are from Venus" phenomenon you described some time ago.

I admire and respect Robert, and I think his "place mobility" concept is quite sensible. Indeed, one can argue that the first and most powerful rung on the transportation "efficiency" ladder is to ensure that destinations are within walking/bicycling distance wherever possible, obviating the need for cars and transit in the first place, in turn freeing up the latter two for long-distance travel. But after the "place mobility" concept, I think the article begins to fall apart.

It seems to me that it's easy to romanticize slow transit if you don't have to rely on it all the time. With all due respect, I get the impression that many "streetcar tourists" use transit only occasionally when visiting a new city, or perhaps to go to a ball game, but for little else. And I get it: if much of your day-to-day travel is characterized by routinized, featureless car trips between work, shopping, meetings, and whatnot, I can see the allure in taking a break to relax and 'go slow,' as it were.

But the romantic impulse towards slow transit wears away quickly if you have no choice but to rely on it all the time! I don't have a car, so I rely on buses that travelexcruciatingly slowly, wasting much of my time. (I have, for example, learned to pad an hour between meetings and appointments in different parts of town, simply because the mixed-traffic transit takes so long to get from A to B to C.) So, rather than viewing slow transit as an opportunity to unwind and watch the street life pass by, I see it as a precious-free-time-gobbler. 

love to be immersed in street life when I'm walking, but when I inevitably need to travel beyond walking distance, I want to get there quickly. Does this make me a so-called "speed freak?" If so, wouldn't all the urban designers out there praising slow transit for others - while they hurriedly shuttle from charrette to public input meeting to office to daycare in their cars – be "speed freaks" too? The reality is that most of us – walkers, bicyclists, drivers, and transit riders alike – are "speed freaks" most of the time, simply because we prefer minimizing travel time and dedicating our precious free time to friends and family.

And this gets back to "place mobility:" it is great when many daily necessities – the grocery store, the bank, the library, the elementary school – are within walking distance. But – and this perhaps reveals a conceptual flaw in New Urbanism – not every place can or should be a self-contained "village." As Jane Jacobs argued, the whole point of cities is to offer rich opportunity – opportunity that requires travel beyond whatever a "village" can offer: "Planning theory is committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. [But] city people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (Death and Life, 115-116)."

For example, I may be fortunate enough to have a daycare center on my block, but perhaps I want to send my kids to a magnet or private school across town – a school better than my neighborhood school? So would my kids rather wake up at 5am to take a streetcar sitting in traffic to get to school, or wake up at 7am to take a faster subway or a bus on a bus lane? I may be fortunate enough to have a pharmacy on my block too, but what if the doctor I trust is across town? Would I rather take the whole day off from work to take a streetcar sitting in traffic and delayed by a poorly-parked car to get there, or could I take a half-day by taking the subway or the crosstown express bus? For better or worse, there will always be long-distance destinations, and I suspect transit riders will continue to prioritize speed for these trips.

As for the short, local trips made possible by "place mobility," I still wonder whether mixed-traffic streetcars are the best bang for the buck. Yes, they are a placemaking tool, but they're not the only (or the cheapest) one. If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don't particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we'll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead "game changing" fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and "place mobility," but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.

So far I've hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don't want to alienate any friends, but I'm increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple "technograndiosity." At the end of the day, I'd rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.

(Marc Szarkowski creates plans, models, diagrams, and illustrations of urban design, streetscape design, and planning proposals, and is a regular rider of Boston's, Philadelphia's, and Baltimore's transit systems.)

*Most new streetcars in the US have average scheduled speeds of 6-10 mph, a jogging or running speed for able-bodied adults.  However, actual travel time (compared to a private vehicle alternative) includes the average wait time.  Most US streetcars are not very frequent (usually in the 15-20 minute range) given the short trips that they serve, so it is the high wait time, combined with the very slow ride, that makes them slower than walking.  Again, this calculation describes the experience of an ordinary working person who needs to get places on time,  not the tourist or flaneur for whom delay is another form of delight

45 Responses to Email of the week: on Robert Steuteville’s defense of slower-than-walking transit

  1. Nathanael July 28, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

    At the end of the day, mixed-traffic transit — whether buses or streetcars — is next-to-useless. Tolerable for the last leg of a trip, tolerable for the empty rural areas, tolerable for Night Owl service — no good for trunk lines.
    You need to have exclusive lanes no matter what. If you need to build them fresh, you should build rail; it’s cheaper to build and cheaper to operate.
    When should you use bus lanes? When someone will allow you to simply convert general-purpose lanes into bus lanes in congested areas. In which case, do so immediately. London (UK) made great progress doing this. In the US it seems to be a political impossibility. Chicago seems to be trying, and may be able to do it, but they haven’t succeeded yet.

  2. Ben Ross July 28, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    The fact that rail has much higher social status than buses makes it more effective in carrying people, because more people will ride it. If you think policymakers should ignore status considerations because they aren’t legitimate, go rezone all the single-family areas along your transit route for apartments and then come back to transportation planning.
    As for the transit planning issue. Dedicated lanes are certainly valuable, but the more important distinction is not between mixed-traffic and dedicated lanes but between “symbolic transit” and services that serve a real transportation function. The short, out-of-the-way Newark Broad Street Station light rail, despite its dedicated right of way, is much less useful than the Portland streetcar running in mixed traffic.

  3. Tony Morton July 28, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

    Of course exclusive lanes aren’t a panacea either. Melbourne’s downtown area has exclusive right-of-way for trams in spades, but this is also the slowest part of the tram network – slower even than the mixed-traffic sections in the suburbs with similar patronage levels.
    What really distinguishes fast from slow street-based transit is traffic priority at intersections. Without it, street-based transit is condemned to remain slow even with its own lanes. But with proper consideration of transit within the traffic control system, as in many European cities, even mixed-traffic routes gain a significant benefit.

  4. Ben July 28, 2014 at 6:17 pm #

    I think it’s a fallacy that Steuteville points out how full the streetcars are (in some places, like Portland, apparently) as a justification for their usefulness. I don’t think ridership necessarily always equals utility (or at least not the best bang for the buck, or the best system connectivity, etc)
    If it’s so good at connecting people at short distances at speeds that are no faster than walking, isn’t it fair to assume that if the streetcar wasn’t there most people would choose to walk? (bad weather notwithstanding).
    And isn’t it also fair to assume that because the streetcar is so slow there are a lot of people who currently choose NOT to use it, when they otherwise might? Like if it was 2-3x faster than walking it would be more justifiable in my mind. Even slow short-distance transit that is a bit faster than walking is often a bad deal if you have to wait more than 5 minutes for it to arrive. By that point, you could just start walking and get to your destination before the transit would have anyway.
    If I ruled the world, we’d be spending all of these millions of dollars on better bike and pedestrian infrastructure (Class 1 everything). We’d connect a LOT more places and people would have much more transportation freedom. Not to mention the incalculable health benefits to society. I’m not sure it’ll ever really happen in the US because when you give people a way to get around on their own, with infrastructure that is relatively cheap to maintain, there’s no way for the government (or contractors) to make big bucks.

  5. Ben July 28, 2014 at 6:32 pm #

    And I know many people will disagree, but I think any motorized transit that is slower than riding a bike (12 mph is easily attainable by most anyone) is probably a waste of money. I realize there are other issues at stake such as perhaps a bus going somewhere (slowly) that is not easily accessible by bike due to bad road network design. But that means we should fix the road / bike network (relatively cheap), not justify the existence of more expensive motorized transit.
    They seem to get it in many European countries, and to some extent in Portland (not so much in San Francisco)… but we have a long way to go. Even the new “SMART” train being built north of SF is diesel (not electric like they’ve been doing in Europe for decades). Talk about having your head in the sand… why spend so much money and not make it future proof? Diesel comes only from dead dinosaurs but electric can come from many sources, especially here in Northern California.

  6. Nathanael July 28, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

    Tony, your point is well-taken: treatment at intersections is arguably equally important to exclusive lanes.
    The Portland Streetcar cleverly runs in mixed traffic on streets which simply didn’t have much auto traffic to start with, meaning that the intersection treatment (dealing with cross traffic) is the important part. If those streets ever attract traffic, Portland Streetcar will need exclusive lanes. And here’s the thing: I think it will get them.
    This has something to do with the higher social status of trains over buses. Portland Streetcar started out mixed-traffic. Its extensions have had more and more exclusive right-of-way. Seattle built one mixed-traffic streetcar and is building a second, but its third is getting exclusive right-of-way.
    Somehow, once the trains or streetcars are running, political pressure appears to give them exclusive lanes. This doesn’t happen with buses, or at least it happens very rarely. It doesn’t even happen in London. People fight to get autos out of the way of trams and trains… but they fight to get buses out of the way of cars. Don’t ask me why! It has something to do with trains being more popular.
    I can think of a lot of examples of bus lanes being converted into auto lanes over the years, even recent ones, but I can’t think of an exclusive rail ROW being converted to an auto route since the 1950s (someone will probably think of one from the 1960s), which was the period of total auto dominance culturally.
    The thing that drives me nuts about Jarrett’s bus advocacy is how *unrealistic, unscientific, and non-empirical* it is, bordering on the ideological.
    It doesn’t really matter why lots of people prefer trains to buses; people do prefer trains to buses, by a large factor, and they have for 150 years. It’s just an empirical fact about human psychology. If you’re going to be scientific, you take this as a fact and deal with it, even if you don’t understand why. You don’t try to evade it.
    If a bus scheme with exclusive lanes and signal priority is, say, a quarter the price of a comparable rail scheme, then sure, go for it (this happens when you can simply slap down “BUS LANE” paint on existing general-purpose lanes). This is uncommon, though.
    Usually, however, the bus scheme and the rail scheme are about the same cost, but the rail project gets anywhere from 10% more to 60% more riders.

  7. Michael D. Setty July 28, 2014 at 11:21 pm #

    Nathanael said:
    Usually, however, the bus scheme and the rail scheme are about the same cost, but the rail project gets anywhere from 10% more to 60% more riders.
    Do you have any references we can use about the “rail preference factor?”

  8. Ben July 28, 2014 at 11:47 pm #

    I think a lot of the preference for rail transit comes down to a few things (at least for me).
    Rail transit is quieter. Almost barely audible in the best cases. Hell even the TGV is unbelievably silent even at 130+ mph. Compare this to buses which are obscenely loud, both inside the bus and out. The city buses don’t even meet the city’s own damn vehicle noise ordinance for residential areas (neither do the garbage trucks… sigh). Exceptions are of course Seattle and San Francisco where there are electric overhead buses, but these are rare in other cities.
    Next, trains are smooth. It’s an enjoyable ride. Buses on the other hand are forced to use our shitty roads with potholes, sharp turns, lots of stop-and-go, and other factors that make the rides bumpy and very unpleasant.
    I wonder when bus really is cheaper if you do real accounting and not phony government accounting. If the road infrastructure already exists and is in good repair — maybe. But rail done correctly can last a really, really, really long time… a lot longer than the lifespan of a road and a bus. Rail might be more cost upfront, but what about when it’s amortized over 30 years?
    I think it comes down to the fact that rail transit makes me feel like a valued customer because it’s nicer, quieter, and a smoother ride. Buses are usually the opposite: dirty, loud, and bumpy… which make me feel like a second class citizen riding a second class transit system. I know some of these qualities aren’t necessarily due to the technology. I’m sure someone could design dirty, loud, uncomfortable rail and clean, quiet, smooth buses… but it just doesn’t seem to happen. So it’s good to realize this and take it into account when people have a preference for rail. It’s not necessary nostalgic. Sometimes we just want to be comfortable.

  9. EngineerScotty July 28, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

    One good thing that Seattle is doing, and Portland has done little of (other than the transit mall), is lots of bus lanes. Quite a few of the freeways have bus lanes, as do many downtown streets. This is in addition to the bus tunnel.
    And the proposed First Avenue Streetcar, which would join the almost-finished First Hill Streetcar (which runs from the King Street Station/stadium area to the vicinity of Seattle Pacific University) with the already-running South Lake Union TrolleyStreetcar, will (according to current plans) have exclusive ROW for much of its run; this will be done by taking traffic lanes away on First Avenue.
    One problem Portland has is many of its streets are narrow, so taking lanes from cars is frequently harder, both politically and technically.

  10. calwatch July 29, 2014 at 12:03 am #

    If they can get streetcars on their own right of way, it acts as light rail as seen in many other cities, and is seemingly politically more palatable than busways and BRT which keeps getting watered down. But streetcars in mixed flow traffic have all the disadvantages of rail and all the disadvantages of mixed flow.
    I wonder if the money spent on laying track, were it to go to buses, could provide the same impact. One example is the Mall Ride in Denver, where buses running every 2-5 minutes act streetcar-like in generating place while being much, much cheaper.

  11. Tom West July 29, 2014 at 6:15 am #

    The wonderful about cities is that theuy have things that small towns don’t. Generally, there aren’t many of those things in the city, so they aren’t within walking distance.
    (If they were always within walking distance, that implies that they supported by the population of a small town, so aren’t a city-only thing).
    That in turns means you need faster-than-walking transport (car or transit) to get there in a sensible tim

  12. David Crossley July 29, 2014 at 6:51 am #

    In all of Robert Steuteville’s words it seems he is making two points: you get much more development (place-making) around streetcar lines than around bus lines, and you get higher ridership on streetcars than on buses. That’s the whole argument, right?

  13. Marc July 29, 2014 at 7:22 am #

    Jarrett, thanks for posting my thoughts here!
    As intriguing as the ‘bus vs. streetcar’ or the ‘mixed-traffic vs. dedicated lanes’ comments here are, my interest in Rob’s article goes beyond all that to the larger ‘slow transit vs. fast transit’ debate underneath, and the article’s reflection of a (common?) argument among urban designers that ‘slow transit’ (regardless of it being bus, streetcar, whatever) is perhaps more conducive to urban vitality than ‘fast transit.’
    This mentality was tackled in the two posts Jarrett linked to…
    …and while people have responded with compelling arguments in favor of either buses or streetcars, I’ve yet to see a compelling argument for ‘slow transit’ per se regardless of mode.
    So, while I’m sympathetic to many (most?) New Urbanist endeavors, to me the ‘slow transit’ argument seems to reflect a conception of the city in which most if not all needs can be sorted into self-contained, inwardly-focused neighborhoods, gradually eliminating the need for citywide or regional travel. But as commenter Micasa, quoting Jacobs, argued, this view of ‘slow transit’ and all-you-can-need neighborhoods is perhaps antiurban on some level, and I hate to admit it, but I sometimes see this result in some NU developments, particularly those struggling to introduce transit into a self-contained “pod”.

  14. Ben Smith July 29, 2014 at 7:46 am #

    Wow… A lot of Bens here it seems today.
    Anyways I really like the critique of the justification of slow transit. Sure it is great if you can walk to everything. But in a city that is likely not possible, no matter how dense or compact it is.
    Despite being from Venus and Mars, urban and transportation planners can get along. The way I see it is that good urban design focuses destinations around transit stops in a walkable environment (as Jarrett says, everyone is a pedestrian at some point) and transit’s role is to move people between said centres of destinations.
    Slow transit can work in getting people to these specific destinations, such as a BIA shuttle or a community bus. It all comes down to scale: Just as taking a local bus across the country doesn’t make sense, neither does taking a jumbo jet across the neighbourhood.

  15. MLD July 29, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    I don’t understand why some feel the need to justify “slow transit” rather than just admitting that a project should have been better but wasn’t because of political realities. Just because a project isn’t ideal doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been built.

  16. Alex B. July 29, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    An excellent response.
    I, too, like the concept of place mobility, and want to see more and more expansion of that idea – better linking the land uses to the transit system, providing better urban design, etc.
    That said, I’m left wondering how this idea of place mobility is a good defense of slow (and potentially unreliable) surface transit. I can think of lots of examples of faster, more efficient transit operations that operate in locations with a great sense of place. I would reject the implication that ‘place mobility’ and faster transit are mutually exclusive.
    There’s also some cringe-worthy statements in Steuteville’s piece, such as this one:
    Place Mobility gets people where they need to go quickly and efficiently, but just not very fast.
    Quick, but not fast? The very contradiction in this defense of slow transit should be a red flag that the underlying concept needs a bit more exploration.

  17. Bregalad July 29, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

    “Quickly, but not very fast” doesn’t read well, but it does make sense. I can get from my bedroom to the kitchen very quickly (only takes a few seconds), but I’m not moving fast (probably only 2 mph).
    Slow transit isn’t just useful, it’s essential. Slow likely means it stops every 200m. If you live 400m from an arterial road then you’re already walking 500m to get to any shop/service/transit stop. Rapid transit generally uses 1km or 1mile spacing so the walk to a station could easily be 1200m.
    How many people are going to walk 1200m when it’s freezing cold, scorching hot or pouring rain?
    How many seniors are going to walk 1200m even when the weather is perfect?
    What percentage of us will be seniors in the next few decades?
    Slow transit connects one urban “village” to the next one where a different mix of shops and services may be available. A well designed local transit system will connect several “villages” to major destinations like hospitals and major employment centres. The keys are integrating with faster transit and reducing inconvenience and delay caused by having to transfer from one slow transit vehicle to another.

  18. Marc July 29, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    Bregalad, that’s a good description of “quickly, but not fast,” and I interpreted that phrase the same way.
    But I still don’t see how this applies to and reflects the usefulness of slow transit. In the spontaneity link, Jarrett argued that slow transit competes more with walking and cycling, while fast transit competes more with cars.
    That is, I can’t ever recall an instance in which I’ve used slow transit to ‘go a bit further,’ as it were, to get from one urban “village” to the one next door, not even as a tourist. (Setting aside for now the problematic notion of self-contained urban “villages” or “cities of neighborhoods.”)
    It was always faster to walk or bike those short distances, even in inclement weather, so I did – why would I wait several minutes to get on an ~8mph bus or streetcar just to go less than 500 meters?! It’s precisely the faster, limited-stop service that induced me to walk a bit further to the station/stop:
    “Rapid transit is a far more viable “augmenter” of pedestrian trips because its travel speeds, and thus the trip-lengths for which it’s suited, lie entirely outside the pedestrian’s range, whereas the streetcar overlaps the pedestrian range substantially.”
    – Jarrett from
    Slow transit is, of course, valuable for the frail, the elderly, the disabled, but then this drags up the bus vs. streetcar debate again: you can build many more mixed-traffic, local-stop bus lines than mixed-traffic, local-stop streetcar lines for the same amount of money, in effect serving (liberating) many more people with mobility problems across a greater area.

  19. EngineerScotty July 29, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

    Slow transit may compete with walking or biking–but there are many times when the latter aren’t practical: Not everyone is physically able to bike or walk a given distance; one may be traveling with belongings (or children), or one may simply be tired and want to chill on the bus and text to friends, then to have to navigate the streets.
    One problem with fast transit that isn’t grade-separated; it can create pedestrian barriers that are nearly as troublesome to built environments as are highways. Even if a bus or train has exclusive lanes and signal priority, if it it travels in a dense urban environment at street level, speeds above 40-50km/hr are probably not advised, and even at that speed, the vehicle should expect to wait for cross traffic.

  20. Marc July 29, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    Yes, and I’ll admit I’ve done the same: walking further to catch a bus when I wasn’t carrying anything, but preferring to wait for the bus at a closer stop when I was carrying something, even though that was slower – but easier – than walking with the stuff.
    But this again drags in the bus vs. streetcar thing: It’s not like American municipalities have a lot of money to throw around, so wouldn’t it be smarter to accommodate both speeds by pairing local and express buses on numerous bus lines rather than struggling to offer the equivalent on maybe two or three streetcar lines? (and often cutting back on the bus network to free up the resources.)
    I’m sure there are examples where rapid ground transit forms a “Chinese Wall” for pedestrians too, but my experience in the European “tram cities” characterized by fast trams/buses (relative to our mixed-traffic streetcars) in their own medians is that Chinese Walls are hardly an inevitability; indeed the neighborhoods adjacent to the medians generally had a street life we would kill for here in the US.
    But I’m glad you raised the point, because I think this is actually one area where urban designers could help transit planners tremendously: by showing them how to integrate at-grade corridors, viaducts, and/or ditches into the urban fabric such that they don’t form barriers. Jacobs called these barriers “border vacuums,” and I previously tried discussing ways in which they could be overcome:

  21. EngineerScotty July 29, 2014 at 5:52 pm #

    It’s interesting. Portland is experiencing a bit of a “streetcar backlash” in some quarters, despite the popularity and success of the Portland Streetcar. A proposed line to Lake Oswego got cancelled (rightly so, IMHO, as it would have provided worse service than the bus it intended to replace, and tried to serve dual roles as mass-transit-to-the-burbs and local slow circulator), and the Streetcar has been blamed by many Portland transit users (somewhat though not entirely fairly) for the recent round of bus service cuts during the Great Recession. (The region went on a rail construction boom during the aughts, and got caught with its pants down; several rail lines opened right around the time that bus service got whacked rather severely. The usual band of right-wing ideologues, coupled with a rather hostile transit union that tends to view rail as a threat to jobs, were more than happy to further the rail-as-developer-pork-boondoggle perception). Of course, Portland is a place where the bus system is well used and popular, and downtown rail is not necessary to induce the locals to use transit.
    One other bit about the Portland Streetcar, in its defense. While someone on a bike can easily outrun it, and it often averages jogging speed–in practice, Portland’s short blocks means you can’t beat it very far on foot, as a pedestrian trying to race it will find themselves frequently stopped at crossings; the speed of the Streetcar takes time waiting at lights into account.

  22. EngineerScotty July 30, 2014 at 1:01 am #

    One other point:
    Walking speed is generally less than 5km/hr; 10-15km/hr are jogging speeds. A common bit of advice for Portland Streetcar users is, if you don’t see the train coming, start walking. If it’s a short trip, you might win. If it’s a longer trip, though, chances are the vehicle will overtake you, and get you there faster than walking.

  23. Nathanael July 30, 2014 at 1:47 am #

    “It’s not like American municipalities have a lot of money to throw around, so wouldn’t it be smarter to accommodate both speeds by pairing local and express buses on numerous bus lines rather than struggling to offer the equivalent on maybe two or three streetcar lines? ”
    Nope. Build the streetcar lines & get them some exclusive lanes.
    “Slow transit is, of course, valuable for the frail, the elderly, the disabled, but then this drags up the bus vs. streetcar debate again: you can build many more mixed-traffic, local-stop bus lines than mixed-traffic, local-stop streetcar lines for the same amount of money, in effect serving (liberating) many more people with mobility problems across a greater area.”
    Well, let me tell you upfront, buses are consistently bad for the infirm and mobility-impaired. Even the nice new low-floor ones. They don’t platform accurately (this is not fixable) and they have a rough and unstable ride (this is also not fixable). My fiancee is mobility impaired, so I’ve paid attention to this. Rail preference seems even higher among the mobility-impaired than among the able-bodied. So if you’re going to go slow & stop frequently for that reason, you want rail even *more*. Otherwise the mobility-impaired will just get cars.
    (I don’t have hard evidence for this preference among the ability-impaired beyond anecdote. I do have hard evidence for the general rail preference; there’s so much evidence of that out there that I’m not going to give individual cites. Do your own research if you want to find it. Look at places where rail replaced bus, where bus replaced rail, and where models without a “rail bias” factor underestimated rail ridership and overestimated bus ridership. You’ll find at least a dozen without difficulty.)

  24. Patrick Sunter July 30, 2014 at 2:19 am #

    Ok, I’ll play devil’s advocate here since there’s many good critiques of the Steuteville article:-
    Maybe there’s something to be said for frequent-stop trams/streetcars in certain areas for a certain type of ‘placemaking’, that is, medium-density linear shopping and eating areas?
    And the benefit from a transit geometry/effectiveness viewpoint could be argued as not the slowness-per-se, but the frequent stops of < 400m along a street (which limits the max speed). Which means that people coming _to_ the area from somewhere else, can reach a lot of potential shopping destinations, walk along a street a bit and visit several shops, and then again catch the tram - all with limited walking. But if this is what Steutenville is implicitly arguing for, I agree "slow transit" is a poor name, perhaps "fine-grain" transit. Here in Melbourne, Australia we actually have several inner-suburban shopping and dining streets along tramways ("streetcars" to you Yankees), where there are also several faster multiple fixed-rail stations within walking distance (+ some bus service). I'm still getting my head around how to get the modes to best complement each other.

  25. Alex B. July 30, 2014 at 6:05 am #

    “Quickly, but not very fast” doesn’t read well, but it does make sense. I can get from my bedroom to the kitchen very quickly (only takes a few seconds), but I’m not moving fast (probably only 2 mph).
    But that doesn’t tell me much about how you got from A to B, it tells me that A and B are very close together.
    The danger, of course, is extrapolating that concept to assume that what works to travel between the bedroom and the kitchen also works well to travel from your house across town to your job.
    The ‘quick’ is more a description of the compactness of the place, and has little to do with the kind of transit. All of which raises the question: why fight against faster transit?
    It’s not like faster transit is incompatible with good, walkable places.

  26. Marc July 30, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    “Well, let me tell you upfront, buses are consistently bad for the infirm and mobility-impaired. Even the nice new low-floor ones…”
    True, and while this is an important difference, what does it have to do with the access dilemma I raised? Should we provide a handful of mobility-impaired people who are lucky enough to live along two or three streetcar lines smooth service, or should we provide a much larger population of mobility-impaired people diffused across the metropolitan area rougher, but still tolerable, local-stop bus service?
    These goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but in our era of perpetual government budget crises in which various projects compete for limited funds and in which streetcar projects sometimes distract from – if not undermine the frequency of – existing bus service, maybe it might seem callous to provide butter-smooth access for a few at the expense of decent access for the many?
    As for “rail bias,” I’m hardly denying it exists, and I’ve never heard any transportation planner deny it either. I think the whole reason Jarrett coined the term “cultural feedback effect” was to acknowledge the difference in perception of the two modes, to examine how the difference accrued over time, and to propose if/how it could be remedied.

    Anyway, the larger “slow transit” debate applies equally to local-stop buses, local-stop streetcars, and any other local-stop mode. The “slowness” of all these is generally attributable to (1) mixed-traffic running without signal prioritization AND (2) close stop spacing, usually a block apart for buses and legacy streetcars.
    I think there actually is consensus here that we should be (1) dedicating lanes and introducing signal prioritization for buses and streetcars wherever possible, but the debate remains on (2) closer stop spacing purportedly enabling “finer grained” access to these modes, as Patrick described it. But unless there are sufficient resources to provide paired local/express service, how do you strike a balance in stop spacing for people with different needs? The systems I’m familiar with have largely failed to do this, so if anyone knows of examples where – and how – compromises in spacing were reached without local/express pairing, I’d love to learn about them!
    But this nuance was absent in the Better Cities article, nor was it present in the other “slow transit” urban design positions that Jarrett’s critiqued here before. I got the impression that those were praising slow transit for the sake of slowness (not on the grounds of occasional necessity as discussed here), and this only raised my suspicion that perhaps these guys don’t ride slow transit enough to get aggravated. If they did, I suspect they’d become “speed freaks” too!
    I think Alex said it best: “It’s not like faster transit is incompatible with good, walkable places.” The placemaking silo – where I come from – sometimes implies there is some kind of incompatibility, but there isn’t.
    Alex’s point raised something else I’ve been pondering: I’m impressed with how well many transit professionals/advocates/orgs have absorbed the ideas coming out of the urban design/placemaking realms in the last decade or so. (This is why I follow Jarrett’s blog, because it’s equally “transit geek” and “urbanist.”) I meet with them and I no longer have to describe “TOD,” continuity of urban fabric, or even placemaking.
    Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much reciprocity: as perhaps reflected in the Better Cities article and in the older ones Jarrett critiqued (and in the Martians vs. Venusians series), there arguably hasn’t been an equivalent absorption of transit’s geometric fundamentals among urban designers and placemakers, and it seems to show!

  27. EngineerScotty July 30, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    One more interesting tidbit about Seattle’s proposed First Avenue Streetcar project: It essentially will connect King Street Station (a major transportation hub south of downtown where Amtrak stops, and located next to Seattle’s primary sporting venues) with Westlake Center (a major retail destination downtown, and the present terminus of Link light rail, of the Seattle monorail, and of the current SLU, er, Streetcar line).
    If one wants to travel between King Street and Westlake, one can use Link, or any number of bus lines that ply the downtown bus tunnel. One can also use any number of surface busses on 4th/5th.
    Given that… does the First Avenue streetcar make sense? Would a local-stop bus (running in an exclusive lane) make more sense? Physically joining SLU and First Hill is a useful thing, but beyond that?
    Many Seattlites seem to think so…

  28. Marc July 30, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    I’m admittedly not familiar with the situation in Seattle, but didn’t they recently push back a potentially-severe pruning of bus service into September?
    So if I were to visit the city after the streetcar was built, I’d enjoy a nicer, smoother (but not faster) ride between First Hill and SLU, but have a harder time getting anywhere else in the city? What effect will this have on car dependence overall?
    – – –
    To change gears slightly, I’m speculating whether the “slow transit” meme among some placemakers is an understandable, but misguided, outgrowth of their (wonderful!) efforts to correct traffic engineering blunders from the 20th century, particularly those blunders that were imposed on urban neighborhoods. Thus we got the critique of urban freeways (and even some boulevardization efforts), of high-speed one-way streets and other arterials, of poor signal timing, of induced traffic, plus the debate over whether all urban street congestion is necessarily “bad.”
    But now it seems the underlying premise – that prioritizing through traffic in urban neighborhoods only undermined those neighborhoods, and that now we should do the opposite – has migrated over to transit: slow it down, get people to respect, relish, and explore the neighborhoods they’re passing through, and perhaps even create neighborhoods that reduce the need to travel in the first place. (The My Kind of Transit approach)
    I think that last goal is laudable (if not always practical in real cities – not “villages” – dependent on extensive economic and social cross-use), as are the efforts to slow/discourage urban auto traffic. But perhaps carrying the ‘taming’ concept over to transit is misguided: if urban auto traffic – particularly long-distance through traffic – is to be discouraged, wouldn’t transit consequently have to step up to replace those trips,* and wouldn’t it therefore need to be sufficiently speedy to compete with, and therefore successfully discourage, all those cars?
    *I know, the argument again could be “Why not render those trips unnecessary in the first place by employing place mobility?” But I’ve yet to come across a city – not a village – in which crosstown travel is unnecessary. Even Tokyo’s walkable, narrow-streeted neighborhoods still rely on a backbone of fast regional rail. Even all the “TODs” popping up have significant, if not dominant, proportions of people who routinely have to venture out into the greater world. (And those that are “transit oriented” in name only, but in reality are mostly car-dependent, further reveal that most people can’t live life in a discrete, contained “Main Street” bubble.)

  29. EngineerScotty July 30, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    The Seattle area is served by quite a few different transit agencies. Sound Transit operates serveral inter-urban transit services, including Sounder commuter rail and the Link light rail system (which right now only has one line in operation, between downtown and Sea-Tac airport). King County Metro provides local bus service throught King County–the largest, densest parts of which are Seattle itself, and the wealthy suburbs east of Lake Washington, including Bellevue, MicrosoftRedmond, and CostcoKirkland. Other counties in the greater Seattle metro area are served by their own local bus agencies–Pierce Transit in Pierce County (Tacoma), Community Transit in Snohomish County (Everett), etc.
    King County Metro also operates the Seattle streetcar lines; though the lines are owned by the City of Seattle.
    Earlier this year, an operational tax levy for KC Metro was defeated. The measure had widespread support in Seattle itself, but was widely opposed in the suburban eastern half of the county. The agency was looking at severe service cuts. Seattle voters then voted to tax themselves to keep bus service within Seattle running at the same level, so as a result the service cuts will fall mainly on East County.
    The Streetcar lines are a City project. How much (if anything) KC Metro and its taxpayers have to pay for Streetcar operations, I don’t know. I doubt that the proposed line will have much of an affect on bus service in Seattle (other than directly-redundant services); I do expect to see more issues in East County, though–as getting from Bellevue or Redmond to Seattle requires crossing one of two frequently-congested freeway bridges, one of which is tolled.
    At any rate, the need for fast transportation across a city will not go away. The point of a city is that it has amenities that require a city scale to support and sustain, that need to be reachable by all residents of the city; a city is not an agglomeration of villages, all independent and all mostly interchangeable.

  30. EngineerScotty July 30, 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    Speaking of Seattle, one of the contributors at Seattle Transit Blog has published a response to this article. (Note that STB has many contributors who don’t agree on everything, including this topic).

  31. d.p. July 30, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    Portland’s tight street grid makes jaywalking exceedingly easy. I cannot remember the last time I had to pause for more than a couple of seconds while traversing the central parts of the city on foot.
    If you get over your Seattle-indoctrinated aversion to logic-based pedestrian forward movement, you will beat the Portland Streetcar to your destination an even greater percentage of the time.

  32. EngineerScotty July 30, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    If you get over your Seattle-indoctrinated aversion to logic-based pedestrian forward movement, you will beat the Portland Streetcar to your destination an even greater percentage of the time.
    FWIW, I’m based in Portland and not Seattle, though I do try and pay attention to what is going on up north. Portland Streetcar is frequent enough in the main trunk (Pearl to PSU) that you’re not likely to beat it on foot more than a few blocks unless you lace up the Nikes. (I’ve done my fair share of “streetcar races”). OTOH, in the branches where frequency is halved, and/or the Streetcar is running on more car-heavy streets, you’ve a better chance.
    That said, I consider further expansion of the Portland Streetcar network, beyond the no-brainer project of closing the loop when PMLR opens in 2015, to be a rather low-priority exercise. (And if and when any new lines open, for the love of Pete please let the city of Portland better coordinate service with TriMet; replacing HALF of a busy and well-functioning bus line with a streetcar frequently causes more problems than it solves).

  33. Chris Bradshaw July 30, 2014 at 7:47 pm #

    As a senior, a slow, frequent-stop service would be very nice, especially if it were on rails, making it smoother.
    What no one has mentioned is that transit fares — one price fits all trips — makes such slow, short, off-peak trips very expensive.
    In Ottawa, the typical commuter trip is about 12 kms long, while a seniors’ trip for mid-day shopping probably is closer to 1.5 kms. And the mid-day trip doesn’t create demand beyond the system capacity.
    We need fare reform to make “placemaking” transit work.

  34. Eric July 31, 2014 at 1:47 am #

    If a transit vehicle travels at half the speed, then it costs twice as much (in terms of drivers and vehicles) to transport a passenger a given distance. This is a big factor that should not be overlooked.

  35. Ben Smith August 1, 2014 at 6:40 am #

    @Chris Bradshaw: That is an excellent point. If a transit fare was something nominal, like 50 cents, then why not take it a comfortable walking distance? But since it tends to be about $3 dollars where I am, I will want to be able to cover some distance.
    I stress again, it really does come down to scale. The Paris metro has very tight stop spacing which limits its speed, but meets the needs of the city it serves admirably since it is not very large physically. Likewise the RER with its regional focus may not directly hit as many local destinations, but fulfills its purpose of meeting the longer travel needs of Greater Paris. Of course, one could argue that if the subway had wider station spacing, then the RER would not have been necessary. But the point is that it comes down to scale, and sometimes you don’t need hyper fast transit to meet travel needs.
    Keep in mind I am not necessarily advocating the idea of “slower than walking” transit as a target for planners, but that “slower” transit to a degree does have its place in the transit network.

  36. Marc August 1, 2014 at 6:42 am #

    Scotty, thanks for the link to the situation in Seattle! Eric’s point is important too – it makes me wonder why (1) the promising cheaper/faster/lighter Lean Urbanism and Tactical Urbanism strategies have reinvigorated New Urbanism precisely because of their potential to offer great placemaking at low cost, whereas (2) the same cheaper/faster/lighter approach has not really influenced New Urbanism’s conception of transit, which still seems exclusively reliant on streetcars. Cheaper/faster/more flexible “Lean Transit” alternatives seem to be routinely dismissed under the brief, throwaway “yeah, buses are important too” line.
    BTW there was a thoughtful analysis of the debate at the Overhead Wire here:

  37. Marc August 1, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    “I stress again, it really does come down to scale.”
    I think this is a good, poignant summary of the need to accommodate both neighborhood/district and citywide/regional travel.
    I can agree that mixed-traffic, local-stop streetcars may have a role in intra-district travel in situations where you can’t replace short, local transit trips with walking and cycling (it’s raining, you’re carrying something, you’re disabled, you’re tired, etc.).
    My interpretation of Yglesias’ original article – which sparked this whole debate – was that he was criticizing how streetcars are beginning to be promoted for inter-district travel (as in DC), where their usefulness is questionable.
    That is, to reiterate your point on scale, I think Yglesias was arguing there was a scale mismatch. At the scale of inter-district and long-distance corridor travel (which will always be necessary to some degree), trip elimination via “place mobility” becomes irrelevant, and therefore applying streetcars to this travel may be misguided, especially if they come at the expense of cheaper local/express bus pairings.
    – – –
    This reminds me of another (sort of) inverted example of rail bias among urban designers: their casual disparagement of Megabus, Boltbus, Greyhound, and the Chinatown buses in favor of Amtrak.
    Even though Amtrak is faster than the intercity buses, the latter are more useful for the young and the relatively-poor by giving them the option to prioritize cost over speed. (I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve taken Amtrak; usually I prefer to save money by taking the intercity bus – but this ability to de-emphasize speed vanishes once I need to travel at the scale of the city or the city-region.)

  38. Wanderer August 1, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    Various thoughts:
    Place Mobility is a real thing, but it’s not just determined by local area transit. I was able to move to a house across the street from a BART station. Because of that trips that would otherwise be unreasonable by transit–and often by transit–become reasonable trips of maybe 30 minutes travel time.
    There was a BRT project in the Bay Area where they did an apples to apples bus-rail comparison (Jarrett has talked about how usually the streetcar gets better service, and, mon dieu!, people prefer the streetcar). Same headways, spans of service etc. It came up with about a 10% straight up rail preference. That’s something, but whether it’s enough to justify the much greater cost, disruption, time to construct etc. of rail is questionable.
    In New York and San Francisco and Europe people don’t feel their social status is diminished if they take the bus. I’ve never quite understood why so many other Americans think it is.
    Megabus and Bolt are not only cheaper but faster than Amtrak from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.
    I do think there’s a problem with mobility impaired people and spreading out transit stops. Planners will say that people should be willing to walk 1/2 mi. (800 m) to a bus stop, but a significant number simply can’t. Maybe the thing to do is to run local circulators with frequent stops in high need areas.

  39. EngineerScotty August 1, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    In New York and San Francisco and Europe people don’t feel their social status is diminished if they take the bus. I’ve never quite understood why so many other Americans think it is.
    Well, the media was spreading that message for much of the latter half of the twentieth century–and transit in many places was neglected sufficiently that it was only useable by those with no other choice–causing political support for it to evaporate, causing further service cuts, causing more ridership cuts–a rather vicious cycle.
    But middle-class usage can (hopefully) lead to a virtuous cycle, where the folks politicians need to pander to start demanding better service, rather than just social-service activists. At any rate–add Portland and Seattle to the list of US cities where the bus stigma is less (though in the suburbs of both, it can still be found).

  40. Marc August 1, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    Yeah, I think US “bus stigma” is largely a product of the “cultural feedback effect” – we treat buses like inferior sops, so they end up being inferior sops.
    Technology doesn’t matter: if enough streetcar lines were treated like inferior sops, they’d acquire a stigma too. Imagine it’s 1960 and you’re riding a shiny, new, air-conditioned GM bus for the first time after having to endure sweltering, rickety streetcars suffering from decades of deferred maintenance:
    I noticed in Europe (well, in Poland and Germany) that the term “tram” more and more signifies a mode of operation than it does a mode of technology (vehicle type). You could be waiting for a Route 15, and sometimes Route 15 would be served by a fixed-rail vehicle, and sometimes it would be served by a bus. Both vehicles were interchangeable to the point where the motive technology simply didn’t matter: they used the same dedicated medians, the same signal prioritization, the same stops, the same branding, and so on.
    But here in the US we seem to insist on segregating by technology (treating each technology differently via separate governmental funding, planning, infrastructural accomodations, operations, branding, communications), so each technology gets its own faction, and we end up with POS systems that aren’t really systems.

  41. d.p. (the most brazen jaywalker in Seattle) August 1, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

    Sorry, Scotty. I presumed you lived in Seattle when you implied you don’t jaywalk.
    I often point to the tight Portland grid when trying to explain to my reticent Seattle neighbors why jaywalking matters: In cities with strong jaywalking cultures, people simply go further, faster when on foot; thus they perceive walking as a more efficient option; thus they walk more (and insist less on slow streetcars or redundantly-close & infrequent bus routes).

  42. EngineerScotty August 1, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    Getting away with jaywalking is aided by a motorist (and law enforcement) culture that permits it, and discourages motorists mowing down pedestrians.
    In Portland:
    1) Drivers routinely yield to pedestrians
    2) Police ticket motorists who fail to do so
    3) Prosecutors will prosecute motorists who kill/injure pedestrians while doing something dangerous or illegal.
    Rather close to my home, a diabetic who went into a diabetic coma while driving and ran over and killed a little girl playing in her yard (he failed to control his diabetes adequately, and had one prior diabetes-related accident) just got four years in prison, and his drivers’ license revoked. For life. (He’s also being sued by the victim’s family, and will likely forfeit his lucrative schoolteacher’s pension, if nothing else).

  43. d.p. (not originally from this coast) August 2, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

    Of course, the best jaywalking is an exercise in physics that in no way presumes drivers will exercise extraordinary care, nor expects them to (dangerously) slam on their brakes the moment they spot you eyeing the curb. It’s all about being able to internally calculate vectors and momentum, so as to launch yourself between and around streams of traffic.
    Each city has slightly different driving habits, but as long as you’re not dealing with 8-lane ex-urban auto sewers that never let up, you should be able to learn to jaywalk pretty much anywhere.
    From my observations, Portlanders seem better at this than most any other West Coasters, presumably thanks to practice with downtown’s tight street grid.
    (Of course, drivers must be expected to do what is needed to keep from passing out at the wheel, or jumping the lanes, or driving with habitual recklessness.)

  44. Marc August 6, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    Let’s go LA made my argument far more succinctly and elegantly than I ever could!: